It's a poor area, filled with yaodongs and cheap taxis (meters start at six RMB, compared with 10 in Beijing and 11 in Shanghai). The Internet bars are always full -- over-full when I was there due to holiday break -- because there aren't enough people with money to open Internet bars and not enough other things for youngsters to do. It's very much a backwater sort of place, with poor roads and even poorer traffic laws (our driver pulled some pretty ridiculous stunts, sometimes aided by a police siren (and lights) he'd sometimes flick on; no, he was not in any way associated with law enforcement).
Shanbei (Northern Mountains) is a place where, like in most of China's provinces, the local leaders run things like a dignified mafia family. As one of my hosts mentioned, he has to give tributes of upwards of 1,000 RMB to county leaders every spring festival, and not just county leaders but organizations, bureaus, etc. These in turn give money to the deputy governor, who passes it on up to the governor himself -- the same cheery, charismatic guy who sat with us for many-a-meals. It's a good strategy for keeping the rich and powerful on top while ensuring a lack of checks and balances. What's the net effect? The impoverished staying impoverished, even if, as my dad is fond of saying, their conditions are "at least better than they were." (Which is, of course, sort of like saying taking sips of gasoline is less dangerous than gulping it.)
Of course, they endure. That is what I love about not just the Chinese character but the human one in general: people have a way of enduring hardship and prospering, finding contentment, building their own little slices of paradise, however modest by our standards. They welcome us with their bread, wild roots and fine-corn porridge. We only offer our heartfelt thanks in return.